Rahul Gandhi fought a good fight with utmost sincerity and dedication. However, as his resignation letter indicates, this was not a spirit shared by his own party leaders and structures. He makes a significant point while describing the nature of the battle he was, and is, engaged in.
He says in his resignation letter: “My fight has never been a simple battle for political power. I have no hatred or anger towards the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) but every living cell in my body instinctively resists their idea of India. This resistance arises because my being is permeated with an Indian idea that is and has always been in direct conflict with theirs. This is not a new battle; it has been waged on our soil for thousands of years. Where they see differences, I see similarity. Where they see hatred, I see love. What they fear, I embrace. This compassionate idea permeates the hearts of millions and millions of my beloved fellow citizens. It is this idea of India that we will now vehemently defend.”
Does the Congress party share the understanding that this is not a “simple battle for political power”? Does the Congress party structure and its leaders comprehend the ideological contours of this battle? Do they “instinctively resist their (BJP’s) idea of India”? Is the Congress party’s “being permeated with an Indian idea that is and has always been in direct conflict with theirs (BJP’s idea of India)”?
Understanding Modi’s massive victory
Innumerable pieces have been written on the meaning and implications of the massive Modi victory in the 2019 parliamentary elections. Much of this analysis clusters around three key pillars, if we discount the fourth focused around the capture of polls through “tampered” EVMs.
The first highlights the undefeatable, heady cocktail of Hindutva and jingoistic nationalism capturing the imagination of the electorate signifying the defeat of or a titanic shift away from the idea of a secular and plural India.
The second credits the BJP’s massive victory to the defeat of a disunited and disorganised Opposition, which did not have the wherewithal to fight the almost perfect electoral machinery of the Amit Shah-led BJP. Given their limited finances and deeply deficient and depleted party structure and almost non-existent party workers.
The third cluster builds a narrative of successes of the Modi government’s welfare schemes and their success in winning the confidence of large sections of the society. A careful reading of the issues and agenda dominating the electoral battle will clearly demonstrate that the welfare schemes and pro-poor developmental programmes of the Modi government were not in the electoral narrative and have cropped up only after the election results to give the victory an aura of a positive verdict for development and performance.
The first two clusters are of critical significance for the future of this country. The defeat of the Congress and much of other Opposition should not trouble us much. This is because parties like the Congress—with defunct party structures on the ground, serious dead wood and negative baggage, lack of mass leaders, and almost no worker base on the ground—will be routinely defeated. However, it’s the organic interplay of these two causes—Hindutva and nationalism, and weak party structures with no grassroots workers—which are a source for serious trepidation.
It is important to underscore that the disunity and disorganised character of the Opposition, particularly the Congress, adds disproportionate winds to the Sangh Parivar’s vision of “New India” and of Hindutva. In this context, the role of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its multiple affiliates becomes crucial in building the solid web of grassroots pracharaks which gives the BJP a real edge in community organising and mobilising. In contrast, the front organisations of the Congress including the Seva Dal, National Students’ Union of India (NSUI) and Mahila Congress are almost obsolete.
The idea of Congress as distinct from the Congress party
The Congress has been a banyan tree of ideas under which a broad range of multiple and even diverse ideas have been nurtured and nourished as long as they have a common core ethos—which is in line with the fundamentals of the ideological frame of the Congress and the idea of India. The party structure has historically replicated the banyan tree approach in its organising principles and provided space for a range of ideas and ideological persuasions ranging from socialist Left to the soft-Right as embodied in the contrasting personalities of Nehru and Rajaji in the early years of Independence or between Narsimha Rao and Arjun Singh in the 1990s and, most interestingly, during 10 years of the UPA between the politics of Manmohan Singh’s economic worldview and Sonia Gandhi’s unwavering support to citizens’ socio-economic rights and entitlements. However, the core ethos of the Congress has always provided the fulcrum around which diverse set of ideas and actors have coalesced and functioned in reasonable harmony.
Dramatic changes in the socio-economic conditions and political landscape of the country and the consequent ramifications in the internal space of the Congress party structure, organisation and leadership, have resulted in acute tensions, deep contradictions and profound inertia within the Congress party. Significant parts of the spectrum of ideas constituting the banyan tree and the ideological frame of Congress have been under tremendous stress and have also been gradually discredited in the public narrative.
For instance, the idea of the state playing a central role in the economy is being keenly contested in the political domain like the ideas of secularism and pluralism. This has led to multiple incarnations in the positioning and posturing of the party. It has also led to a feeling of confusion or disarray in the realm of ideas with a lack of clarity on what constitutes or does not constitute the banyan tree.
This situation has created a disharmony and apparent contradiction between the party and its own core ideological framework—which often gets manifested as the distancing of the party from a coherent and consistent set of ideas. Amidst, these tensions, the core ideas of the Congress, appears to have faded or diminished. It is important to understand that the idea of Congress and the Congress party structure are not collapsible nor can be used interchangeably. Therefore, a gaze mediated through the party lens might see a weakening of the core ideas while in reality, the core ideas of the Congress still resonate strongly with the core ideas/idea of India—even when the massive Modi victory seems to be challenging it.
With this backdrop, it becomes extremely critical to resurrect and amplify the core ideas of the Congress in a language and grammar which speaks to the current times. This is a challenging task as the external reality for the first time in independent India has created conditions for fundamental challenges, subversion and attacks on these core ideas and ideals of the Indian republic. The need to strongly rearticulate core ideas of the Congress—and not of the party structure—is most urgent. It is time to resurrect the Congress sans the Congress party.
Re-energising the Congress through mass mobilisation and social movements
The Congress has never been a cadre-based party but has always had robust space for mass movements reflecting the aspirations and struggles of the common people. In fact, the core ethos and politics of the Congress usually got reflected through these movements. This kept the politics of the Congress dynamic close to the ground and lived realities of common people. The other strand of the Congress has always been the party structure. In the recent past, the party structure continues to function but the space for mass movements (based on people’s politics) has shrunk. This has gradually disconnected the Congress from the realities of the people. It has also meant that the Congress as an idea is identified more and more with the Congress party structure, and the party structure has been captured by entrenched interests.
In the coming years, the Congress must put all its energies into reviving the movement space and connecting with the issues of poor and ordinary people to ensure that the mass character and the pro-poor and marginalised bias of the idea of the Congress remains intact. This should guide the politics of the party, and it should not be steered by the vested interests and limitations of the party structure.
The Congress and civil society
Civil society has continued to work in this space of movements and people’s issues, embodying the values of justice, dignity and rights. They have gradually occupied this space with some successes and failures. Their mass base varies but the value proposition remains undiluted. They also work in far closer coordination with the poorest and marginalised and reflect the issues affecting them. Civil society organisations largely work as a non-party political force. They are clear that the issues they raise are very political like caste atrocities, displacement, land rights, public health and education. Nevertheless, they do not align with any political party and believe that their role should be focused on making power accountable irrespective of party lines.
It is evident that a robust civil society needs an enabling environment in which their primary right to exist and civic right of association or function is not stifled. With this backdrop, the Congress would benefit significantly by working in close or loose coordination (or alliance) with civil society, which can strongly help in amplifying the issues of the common and marginalised people. This could revive the movement space of the Congress by foregrounding people’s issues and also help in mass action. On the other hand, the Congress must with due humility reach out to civil society and adopt/imbibe the people’s agenda and build traction for the core issues of poverty, exclusion and development.
A broad cross-section of Indian people shares a deep commitment to strengthen and protect the core ideas of the Indian Constitution and republic. The threat to the core ideas of the Constitution should not be viewed as being limited to pluralism and secularism, given the current context of extreme stress on these values. These are extremely important but these threats loom large on fundamental values like human rights, human dignity and social justice, particularly from the perspective of the most marginalised and excluded citizens and communities of India. These are also endemic problems facing the country and real issues of the common people.